If it’s a cozy environment, why have villains in it at all? In a word, contrast. As Shakespeare wrote: ‘How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world’. Our warm and fuzzy setting, while not a naughty world, has dusky elements that only our bright and plucky main character, usually female in this genre, can overcome.
Baddies come in various degrees of baddiness. On one end we have the uncontrollable psychopaths with no moral compass whatsoever: Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs, Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, Mr Hyde from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
With reference to the photo above, this is a lookielike of James Bond arch-villain Blofeld’s cat. A mention therefore must be made of villains you love to hate. From the beginning we don’t take them seriously so there is a diminished sense of threat. They openly revel in their misdemeanors so there is no mystery.
Next, there are those who perhaps did once have a sense of right and wrong but are overcome by emotion, for example, jealousy: Mrs Danvers in Rebecca and Iago in Othello.
Finally there are good people who do bad things. Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester makes the best of a bad situation with his first wife. He arranges for private medical care, as it were, while living a lonely and despairing existence. Rochester fights against his growing attraction to Jane which manifests itself as abruptness. However, at last, out of desperation, he attempts a deception that, exposed, leaves Jane traumatised. Good person; bad deed.
Where do these figure in cosy mystery? Turning to the queen and godmother of the genre, Agatha Christie, we observe her treatment of villains. The author has ‘evil’ in one of her titles and even the apparently mild Miss Marple uses the adjective ‘wicked’. Christie’s murderers are cold, calculating killers who, in pre-1965 Britain would have faced execution.
In the cosy genre we eschew the gore of the rampaging axe-wielder using unacceptable language to express his dissatisfaction. However, we do have our pick of the scale if we present them apparently palatably. Christie accomplished this cleverly. Her murderers appear normal, even likeable or sympathetic, until the dénouement, the unmasking at the end. Then the part of our cosy world with the dark patch of unsolved crime is lit with the beacon of truth.
This leads me to believe that the secret to wring baddies in a cozy mystery, is to do with presentation.
I developed much of my own method courtesy of TJ Brown author of The Unhappy Medium, when I had the privilege of top editing his novel Tom Fool, second in the comic paranormal series. Top edit? This is the final check for continuity, flow, and includes analysis of the mental and emotional terrain of the book. The editor looks at how well they work and suggests any way that they might be improved. And here I learned about how to write villains in a fun read.
Tim’s principle baddies are evil, so evil that he nudges them into caricature. His lesser villains he renders ridiculous in their obsessions. (Rather like Cruella de Ville in The One Hundred and One Dalmations) There are scary scenes, moments of chilling fear and split seconds of shock that, with a word, a phrase, or sentence, he artfully switches to helpless giggles on the part on the reader. Tim’s tools: absurdity and diffusing. Of course, all nasties come to a sticky end and justice is served while the heroic goodies live to fight another day.
I learned so much from those weeks working with Tim, who finally convinced me I could write a novel of my own. That was when he told me of a genre hitherto beyond my ken: cosy paranormal mystery.
The baddies in the Amanda Cadabra series, similarly to Tim’s approach, are in two tiers: the shadowy witch-clans of the Cardiubarns, Granny’s family, and the Flamgoynes, their cold-war-style foes. From birth, the threat to Amanda is very real and dictates her secretive life-style. Although I prefer to avoid such weighted words evil and wicked it is clear that both clans are thoroughly ill-intentioned. Nevertheless, the amoral fashion in which they do not hesitate to bump each other off tips edges them towards comic.
Each book has its own mystery. However, there are no psychopaths among the criminals, who are driven by emotion such as jealousy and fear. But wrong has been committed and fairness to the victim dictates that they are brought to justice, which of course they are.
This being the world of warm and fluffy (with an edge), no character to whom we have become attached perishes. However, even if it is an outsider, it is still a case for our heroine of ‘ritin’ ‘rongs’, in the words of Richmal Crompton’s incomparable William. When Amanda does so we share the moment with her and our sense of balance in satisfied, our faith in the ultimate victory of light and right restored.
The subject of villains and their treatment in literature is a vast and deep one. This is but my take of an overview and a how-I-do-it.
The manuscript of Book 5 is now laid out on my carpet, a crucial stage in its development. It is growing into the dish that I hope will be for your cozy delectation.
Back next week with more ponderings, revelations and news.
Happy Winter Days,
Light streams up through the darkness of the ancient church colouring the stained glass windows. I didn’t see it. I heard it. And I was sure I must have been mistaken.
Moments later, there it is was on the screen. I exchanged wide-eyed glances with my friend sitting on the same pew. Yes, she had heard it too: the name.
The fictional village of Sunken Madley, in which all of the Amanda Cadabra British humorous cozy paranormal mysteries are set, is based on a real place. Its name: Monken Hadley, a small community with a thousand-year-old history just north of London. This year they are celebrating 525 years since the rebuilding of the medieval church, most likely damaged in the Battle of Barnet. Every quarter of a century, this restoration is marked with a special event. Only a few days ago, in 2019, it was a retelling the story of the church and village in a spectacular Son et Lumière, sound and light.
The event started at 3.30pm, but by the time the startling revelation occurred, it was already night outside. The monks of the old priory, the opposing sides of the famous battle, the gentry and the philanthropists of long ago had passed and sounded before our eyes and ears. The tale had reached the period of the first world war. The narrator spoke of a memorial stone on the walls of the building where we sat, dedicated to one … and that was when my ears pricked up…
In the winter of 2018, my author pal TJ Brown convinced me that I could pen a cozy paranormal mystery. I had been adamant for years that I was strictly a non-fiction writer and fantasy was way beyond my ken. But Tim knew better. He encourage me to go off to research the genre, and presently we sat down together to begin the process of creation. First, we needed a name for the heroine. I knew it had to be something to do with magic. With a thesaurus list before us, we tried out different forenames and surnames, googled possible variations to see if they’d been used. The clock ticked away. We began growing tired and then … playing around with Abracadabra .. Tim came out with it: Amanda Cadabra! I repeated it in my head. Yes. We’d found her.
Suddenly, I heard the name, the name of her cat, I knew he was a collection of greys, he had livid yellow eyes and was permanently grumpy. It was the first name and the first thing that came to me. I had never seen it as a person’s name before, I knew it only as a weather system and the title of a Shakespeare play.
In the days that followed as I began to get a sense of Amanda and her familiar. I knew I had to find the right location for them. It had to be a village, and as I’d never lived in one, it had to be on the outskirts of a big city. I pulled up Google maps and began the search.
I’d have said that I knew the area pretty well, but I had no recollection of having seen the name of this particular village. Soon I was in the car and heading along the A1000, itself with a long history. Off the beaten track I went, by a pond, between trees and around the bend.
Behold. I knew: I had found my village, the village of Monken Hadley. Of course, I couldn’t call it that, so what about transposing the first letters … Hunken Madley? No … not quite right … another word ending in ‘unken’ … sunken … and it was born: Sunken Madley.
I tell you all of this, so you will understand why what I heard in the dim echoes of the church on that dark afternoon was so startling. I had no prior knowledge or use of that word as a pronoun or of that village.
So we’re in the dark of the church, sitting in a pew near the back looking up at the big screen, with the rest of the audience. We are hearing the saga of Monken Hadley and the officer whose efforts were instrumental in the achievement of the peace of 1918. Sadly he died just weeks before the end of the World War 1. His name? Charles Tempest-Hicks. The name of Amanda’s magical cat? Tempest.
Shivers ran down my spine, chills of excitement. Was the brave captain my muse? Had he been a cat lover? Was I being inspired? What would you say is the answer to the real-life mystery? Do share your thoughts with me.
Regardless, I am overjoyed that Tim motivated me to begin my cozy mystery journey, that he thought of Amanda Cadabra, that Tempest came to me. It is a source of continuing delight that Monken Hadley somehow drew me, that I have met so many kind people there, and that I travel back in time whenever I visit, Through writing this series, I have connected with all the dear readers who help and support and encourage me. I am thrilled to be on the journey of a lifetime, and that you join me in it. Thank you.
This year the sound and light show raised money for the restoration of a precious listed building, the 400-year-old church house, so that it can serve the community as was intended. And believe me, the entire community, from young to old all participated in creating the 525 experience. Seeing them waving happily at us in the closing credits brought a lump to my throat. Proceeds from tickets and donations also went to to the Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospice.
If you’re ever passing, do pop into the church of St Mary the Virgin, Monken Hadley. You can be assured a warm welcome and a moving and enchanting experience. It delighted at least one of our American cousins so much that it became the model for a church built in Chappacua, USA.
Next week: an offer and something new for December to help with your Christmas shopping. Want to get to know Tempest? Download your free short story here: Tempest’s First Day. Back soon!